The Green Road

Green RoadAfter reading the first couple of chapters in Anne Enright’s new novel, I tweeted that I was feeling done with novels that were really interconnected short stories. That’s not entirely true, of course, but the first half of this book is a good example of what a heavy lift that form is.

The first five chapters of The Green Road could each exist independently of the others. They’re set in different times and places. The first two are particularly difficult. The first, about Hanna in 1980 in County Clare, jumps around a lot and seems to focus as much on Hanna’s brother Dan is it does on Hanna. There’s a narrative reason for that, I think, which becomes evident later, but it makes Hanna’s chapter difficult to get into. The second chapter, which is actually about Dan in 1991 New York. Although highly effective at evoking an era, this chapter has the curious feature of an unnamed first-person narrator who, as best I can tell, is never identified, speaking only of “we” but never of “I.” That bit of weirdness is never cleared up. It was these two chapters, connected by character overlap but not much else, that frustrated me. As individual stories, neither seems like much, but they also don’t really enhance each other, which is how interlocking stories should work.

The book improves in subsequent chapters, largely because the stories were more appealing. Constance’s experience of a cancer screening in Co. Limerick in 1997 includes some dark humor and presents what feels like a real moment-by-moment narrative of a day that is both tedious and terrifying. Emmet’s chapter, set in Mali in 2002, is equally appealing in its mix of humor and horror. They’re good standalone stories, but they don’t offer much to each other.

When the stories merge in the second half to bring these four siblings together with their mother, Rosaleen, the book starts to feel more like a novel. And it’s not a bad novel. The focus shifts among the children and their mother, and we see the many ways they understand and misunderstand each other. In crisp, clear, and pleasing prose, Enright offers a picture of family that feels honest in its rendering of distance and intimacy. I especially appreciate how Enright was able to show how aggravating Rosaleen can be without turning her into an object of scorn. There were, I felt, some odd moments around money that weren’t fully worked out, but I think she was trying to get at something about definitions and success and how relying on a spouse’s income isn’t the same as having your own resources, but the way it’s dropped into the story struck me as odd.

As far as where this book belongs in my Booker ranking, after the rocky start, I can’t bring myself to rank it highly. It certainly won’t make my shortlist, unless the remaining five finalists are truly mediocre (which I doubt).

Other Shadow Woman Booker Panel reviews: Bibliographing, Dolce Bellezza, Nonsuch Book


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A Spool of Blue Thread

Spool of Blue ThreadAnne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, the seventh book I’ve read for the WoMan Booker Shadow Panel, got off to an inauspicious start when I took an instantaneous dislike to the snobby Whitshank family at its heart. It’s not that I don’t enjoy books about unlikable people, but I dislike it when an author seems to be unaware that her creations are entirely insufferable–and the Whitshanks, especially matriarch Abby Whitshank, are. Anyone who isn’t “their sort” is held up for scorn or, perhaps worse, their pity. Their efforts to be nice seem like a show, and appearances are given a high priority.

Thank goodness for the second chapter, where Tyler steps in and teaches her readers how to understand this book and this family:

But like most families, they imagined they were special. They took great pride, for instance, in their fix-it skills. Calling in a repairman—even one of their own employees—was looked upon as a sign of defeat. All of them had inherited Junior’s allergy to ostentation, and all of them were convinced that they had better taste than the rest of the world. At times they made a little too much of the family quirks—of both Amanda and Jeannie marrying men named Hugh, for instance, so that their husbands were referred to as “Amanda’s Hugh” and “Jeannie’s Hugh”; or their genetic predisposition for lying awake two hours in the middle of every night; or their uncanny ability to keep their dogs alive for eons. With the exception of Amanda they paid far too little attention to what clothes they put on in the morning, and yet they fiercely disapproved of any adult they saw wearing blue jeans.

As it turns out, the project of this book is to poke holes in the family’s own view of itself—to reveal a history that is not what most would expect and to show that the future is less certain that anyone would imagine. It is, at times, a quirky book, and the Whitshanks never become entirely likable, but as we get to dig past those appearances, they become more interesting and easier to sympathize with.

The book’s present-day storyline deals with the Red and Abby Whitshank and their relationship with their adult children, three of whom reside near them in Baltimore and one of whom is more of a free spirit, losing touch with the family for months and months as he wanders the country trying out one life after another. The book also travels back in time, to Red and Abby’s youth and to the early years of Red’s parents’ marriage. Some of the stories revealed in these flashbacks are ones the family loves to tell, but others are buried in the minds of those who’ve died, leaving behind a legend instead of the more complicated and compelling truth.

This is only the second book I’ve ever read by Anne Tyler. My first attempt at reading her was close to 20 years ago, when I read and didn’t much like Breathing Lessons. I’ve come to suspect that her books are less easily appreciated by the young, so I’d been thinking I might revisit her, and I did like this better than I remember liking Breathing Lessons. It’s a book that goes down easily and is more subtle than it appears at first glance. I’d not put Tyler on my must-read author list on the strength of this book, but I’d certainly consider reading her again.

As far as the Booker goes, this book lands with the other middlers—The Moor’s Account and The Illuminations. It’s a book I enjoyed and am glad to have read, but I wouldn’t consider it worthy of a major prize. However, of the three, it’s the one I’d favor most for the prize, mostly because I appreciated the gradual tearing down of the family mythology. It was aiming for something more sophisticated than The Moor’s Account and was more successful in achieving its aim than The Illuminations.

Other Shadow Panelist Reviews: Of Books and Bikes, Dolce Bellezza

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oblivionA couple of months ago, I reviewed David Foster Wallace’s book of essays, Consider the Lobster. I read that book with increasing pleasure (and perhaps a tinge of surprise), and in the end was really blown pretty much flat by his talent: humor, dazzling clarity, seriousness, and compassion for some of the weirder parts of humanity shone from every essay. I’m still talking about it, in fact: I am a minor Consider the Lobster evangelist.

I read Oblivion, a book of Wallace’s short stories, because I was hoping for another hit. Unfortunately, I found most of the stories almost unreadable. A couple of them were interesting and one was fantastic, but… how shall I put this? I really admire George Saunders’s short stories, in his books Tenth of December and In Persuasion Nation; they’re weird, wise, compelling punches to the gut, almost like parables. They’re compassionate, too, and often funny, and despite being set in some world that is not quite ours, they are deeply human. David Foster Wallace’s stories in Oblivion seemed as if George Saunders were writing stories, but had sustained some kind of traumatic brain injury after which he just couldn’t stop talking.

The first story, “Mister Squishy,” is a good example of this. Wallace likes to play with basic narrative issues (who is talking? where are we? what is going on?) but the premise is, or appears to be, a focus group in which a number of men are testing out Felonies!, a new kind of high-end dark chocolate snack cake. The story goes into immense — indeed, what I thought might possibly be infinite — detail. It spirals up, from deception to deception, from the members of the focus group to the managers to their managers to high-level executives, all deploying schemes and neuroses. Wallace is convincing about marketspeak, statistics, and the kind of baroque methodological assessments that really serve no one but the corporate entities that engendered them. The leaders and test subjects (all, here, male) are portrayed as little more than walking aggregates of the various brands and products they consume or propagate; people are interpreted in exclusively “demographically meaningful” terms like age, race and haircut.

Fully seven of the Focus Group’s men had small remains of Felonies! either on their shirtfront or hanging from the hairs on one side of their mustache or lodged at the inner corner of their mouth or in the small crease between the fingernail of their dominant hand and that nail’s surrounding skin. Two of the men wore no socks; both these men’s shoes were laceless leather; only one pair had tassels. One of the youngest men’s denim bellbottoms were so terrifically oversized that even with his legs out splayed and both knees bent his sock-status was unknown. One of the older men wore black or rayon socks with tiny lozenges of dark rich red upon them. Another of the older men had a mean little slit of a mouth, another a face far too saggy and seamed for his demographic slot.

But sinister forces are at work: a spy infiltrates the focus group, a manager cultivates ricin and botulin toxin in his apartment, and a Mister Squishy figure (terrorist? performance artist? we don’t know) scales the outside of the building. The story is 63 pages long, a novella really. I got the point of it, but it took me days to read.

“Oblivion” is about a man whose wife accuses him — nightly, and with increasing acrimony and desperation — of snoring. He is convinced she is totally wrong, and he’s actually awake when she accuses him. The man’s voice is pompous, repetitive, self-centered. We suspect he’s just not listening to his wife’s entreaties — these men! So far, so banal, until a darker cast kicks in; he’s so tired that he actually begins to hallucinate. His language begins to slip, and both the images and the words show us what may really be going on. We begin to suspect that he’s not just irritating, he may actually be criminal (and also irritating.) And then the final layer — barely longer than a paragraph, at the very end of the story — arrives, and all our assumptions are turned upside down. Again, a very interesting story (I read it twice) but we have to drag ourselves through 50 pages of mind-numbing detail before arriving at the narrative payoff. Wallace leaves us the way into his fiction, but how strait the gate!

I am perfectly happy with the idea (an idea that David Foster Wallace embraced publicly and with vigor) that serious fiction doesn’t need to be 100% pleasure. Entertainment that is primarily seeking your money (The Avengers, say) is probably going to tip in the direction of pleasure; it’s more lucrative. If you make your audience uncomfortable, or force them to work hard to unlock pleasure — something more serious fiction or film tends to do — it will engage fewer people (even intelligent people) and it will engage them less of the time. That’s perfectly okay, though it probably makes it more of a challenge for the publishers.

But most of these stories — as interesting, as serious and well-constructed, as moving and as funny and as good as they are — just didn’t warrant the investment. I know! I didn’t have to read them: his house, his rules, and I didn’t have to play. I do in fact think that Wallace wanted to challenge his readers but also nourish them; he said over and over again that he wrote (and read) in order to engage in a conversation, in order not to feel alone in the world. These stories, I felt, for the most part, were an ungenerous way of reaching that goal: as Douglas Adams says, they are on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard. I want to work for my fiction, where work is play for mortal stakes. I just don’t want to be told, as I’m reading, that if I can’t hack it, I can take my marbles and go home.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 3 Comments

The Year of the Runaways

Year of the RunawaysThis novel by Sunjeev Sahota is the sixth of the Booker nominees that I’ve read for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel and the third (along with Lila and A Brief History of Seven Killings) that I’d be happy to include on the shortlist. I say that not because it’s a perfect book but because I was so very swept up in the complex story it tells.

The book focuses on four young people living in Sheffield. Three–Tarlochan, Avtar, and Randeep–have come from India looking for a brighter future. The fourth, Narinder, has come from London as a visa-wife for Randeep. For one year, their fortunes are intertwined, and each one’s choices affect the fates of the others, sometimes in ways they could never have predicted.

Although they didn’t know each other, Avtar and Randeep were connected before they came to England. They lived for a time in the same town, and Avtar fell in love with Randeep’s sister, Lakhpreet. The two men came to England together, Avtar as a student and Randeep as a newlywed, and Lakhpreet urges Avtar to look after her sometime unstable brother, an obligation that is not always in Avtar’s best interest.

Tarlochan also comes from India, but his background is entirely different. A rickshaw driver from the untouchable chamaar caste, he faced discrimination and violence at home. Life in England isn’t easy, but he can earn money, and he does whatever he can to maximize his income. He ends up living and working alongside Randeep and Avtar as they all try to make money they couldn’t make in India.

Narinder’s story is altogether different. A devout Sikh born in England, she wants nothing more than to do the right thing. Her journey was the one that most captivated me. This was partly because I was fascinated to read about a Sikh character—I don’t recall encountering one in fiction before—but I also loved how Sahota really took on how difficult it can be to discern just how to be a person of faith. As a Christian, I found aspects of Narinder’s journey strongly familiar. Her belief in self-sacrifice, whatever the cost, runs through much of Christianity as well and can lead to similarly difficult consequences.

Much of the novel concerns itself with the cost of doing the “right” thing, and it does so without ever glibly stating that it’ll all work out for the best in the long run. In fact, you could argue that it does the opposite. This is not a book where doing good pays off. Doing good is honored in the narrative, but so is taking care of yourself. In fact, sometimes taking care of yourself is the only way to survive, as Tarlochan learned the hard way. It’s a complicated dance, and I appreciated that Sahota just lets it be complicated.

As I said above, it isn’t a perfect book. The way Avtar and Randeep’s journeys were entwined sometimes made it hard to tell them apart. And I’m still not sure how I felt about the epilogue. I wanted to know where the characters ended up, but it’s hard for an epilogue not to feel tacked on. Still, in this case, that tacked on epilogue offers yet another way of bringing home the point that sacrifice may never pay off. Without it, I could easily have imagined things working out best for the people who gave the most, which would undercut so much of the story that came before.

The characters go through some difficult times in their year together. As immigrants without a social safety net, they get taken advantage of and have no recourse. It is at times a raw and difficult story, and it’s a story that I believed in and was moved by.

(And if you choose to read between the lines there regarding my feelings toward one of the other Booker contenders, you’re not entirely wrong.)

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | Tagged | 4 Comments

A Brief History of Seven Killings

Brief HistoryI began reading Marlon James’s new novel back in February, and it quickly became clear that I didn’t have the brain space for it. The multiple narrators, dialect, and full immersion into 1970s Jamaica required more than fragmentary bits of unfocused attention. Thankfully, I had already scheduled a week off from work just as I needed to attempt it again for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel.  Even giving it my full attention, there are sections I didn’t understand, but I understood enough to recognize this as a remarkable work. Given how much I loved James’s previous novel, The Book of Night Women, I am comfortable naming him as among my favorite contemporary authors.

Much of this book is set in Jamaica in the late 1970s, when Bob Marley was in ascendance, and rival gangs loyal to the JLP and the PNP, the two main political parties, take violent action to gain and maintain power. Much of the book focuses on the attempt to assassinate Marley (referred to in the novel as the “Singer”) in December 1976, just two days before a concert organized by the prime minister. Several characters in the novel are involved in or witnesses to the plot, and their connection to it comes up again and again as the action moves to New York in the 1980s and 90s.

Going into the novel, I knew nothing about Jamaican history and politics or Bob Marley or Rastafarianism, and James doesn’t offer any background information. He just throws readers in with a dead politician’s commentary on the living. This ghost reappears at the end of each section, but most chapters are narrated by people closer to the action—gang members, dons, a CIA agent, a Rolling Stone reporter, and a woman who’s gotten a little too close to it all. As a reader, I just had to ride along on the language and hope to catch up. The language, as well as the vivid characters, were very nearly enough, but I did eventually consult Wikipedia for some general background, and I watched a documentary about Bob Marley that was an enjoyable supplement.

In the Acknowledgments at the end of the book, James says that in trying to get this novel started, he realized that it needed to be “a novel that would be driven only by voice”—something in the vein of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (although, as it turns out, much longer and less comical). It is the voices that make this novel work. In my review of The Illuminations, I complained that that book felt too much like an exercise and not enough like a story. I suppose some readers would complain that this too feels too much like an exercise, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Here, the characters and their voices are too vivid, too alive and their story too big and consuming for this to seem like just authorial tricksiness.

I suppose if I’m going to go on about the voices, I should give you a taste. Here, for example, is Bam-Bam, recruited into the gang life as a boy, when his parents are killed in front of them:

Is a hell of a thing when a gun come home to live with you. The people who live with you notice it first. The woman I live with talk to me different. Everybody talk to you different when them see a new bulge in you pants. No, is not that at all. When a gun come to live in the house it’s the gun, not the person who keep it, that have the last word. It come between man and woman talk, not just serious reasoning, but even a little thing.

And this is Nina Burgess, a young women who’s not part of the action, but close enough to be touched by it:

It’s not the crime that bothers me. I mean, it bothers me like it bothers anybody. Like how inflation bothers me, I don’t really experience it but I know it’s affecting me. It’s not the actual crime that makes me want to leave, it’s the possibility that it can happen any time, any second now, even in the next minute. That it might never happen at all, but I’ll think it will happen any second now for the next ten years. Even if it never comes, the point is that I’ll be waiting for it and the wait is just as bad because you can’t do anything else in Jamaica but wait for something to happen to you. This applies to good stuff too. It never happens. All you have is the waiting for it.

This is a story of boys forced to grow up too soon, of good men turned bad, of bad men taking power wherever they find it, of powerless men trying to understand (and failing). It’s an important story, not just because of its historical significance but because so many of the patterns depicted in its pages continue today—and not just in Jamaica. It’s a gorgeous, challenging book.

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The Illuminations

IlluminationsThe Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan is the kind of book that makes me feel wholly unsophisticated as a reader. I could admire what O’Hagan is attempting to do and appreciate his fine wordsmithing, but I couldn’t find my way to any real enjoyment. As a reader, I just prefer good old-fashioned storytelling to writing that feels at times too much like an exercise in style.

The novel’s two central characters are the elderly Anne Quirk, a once-celebrated photographer now succumbing to dementia, and her grandson Luke, a British army captain stationed in Afghanistan. The early chapters alternate between Anne’s life in an independent living facility and Luke’s service in Afghanistan. Here, moving between these two entirely different environments. Eventually, when Luke returns to England, the two narratives merge, with occasional digressions into the minds of Anne’s neighbor, Luke’s mother and Anne’s daughter, one of Luke’s fellow officers, all of them trying to understand themselves and their relationships to others in the world.

The novel concerns itself greatly with family and with the tension between isolation and intimacy that comes with being in a family. Each person in the novel longs for connections with some (whether family, neighbors, or fellow soldiers) and resist connections with others–only a few, like Luke and Anne, share a mutual connection. For this reason, much of the novel has a melancholic and longing tone, with each person surrounded yet lost in his or her own world.

The writing is the novel’s greatest strength. The characters have distinct voices, and the conversation feels authentic, whether it’s among soldiers on a mission, old women in a rest home, or carousers in a pub. And the way the dialogue sometimes feels random and scattershot, with each person having his or her own conversation, sometimes without listening to the others, gibes well with the novel’s interest in isolation in a crowd.

But as much as I admired O’Hagan’s skill in writing and characterization (the neighbor, Maureen, is particularly well-done), I felt at a distance from this novel. The revelations near the end were not entirely unsurprising, but I was moved by a story involving a rabbit—and I suspect that bit will continue to reverberate in me as I mull over how it affected the characters’ other relationships.

This is the fourth book I’ve read for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel. At this point, I don’t have a strong opinion either way regarding whether it should end up on the shortlist. A lot will depend, of course, on my impressions of the other books, but I’m also curious as to how I’ll feel about this once I’ve gotten a little more distance.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | Tagged | 12 Comments

Bookish Films Roundup

I was in bed sick last week, and I watched a lot of movies while I was down. As it happens, almost every film I watched was based on a book. I thought I’d give you a few of my thoughts on them, and see what you think as well!

stardustStardust is the only film I watched that I’ve actually read the book as well — Neil Gaiman is a favorite author of mine, so chances were good that I’d have read this one. Stardust isn’t in the top three (or indeed five) of my favorites of his books, though, so I hadn’t leapt at the chance when the film came out. It’s all a little too Manic Pixie Dream Star for me: how do we make Tristram into A Man, using the girl/ star? It’s not as bad as they come, and it’s an utterly charming story in many ways, but as I said, it’s not my favorite of Gaiman’s. Still: I was pleased to see it was a nice adaptation! Lots of backstory cut out, of course, for reasons of brevity, but all the essentials there. The best thing about this movie was, of course (say it with me) the amazing, A+ cast. This would have been a B movie, I think, but Claire Danes! Robert de Niro! Ricky Gervais! Michelle Pfeiffer! All these terrific little cameos! I don’t know about you, but it really elevated the film for me, and I enjoyed the whole thing.

jackie brownJackie Brown is based on Elmore Leonard’s book Rum Punch. I’ve actually never read anything by Elmore Leonard. My dad’s a fan of his, but for some reason his books don’t seem like they’d be up my alley. Should I change my mind about that? Anyway, I like (some) Quentin Tarantino, and I like heist films, and I like films about power dynamics that have to do with gender and race, and this was a great entry in all those genres. Pam Grier and Samuel L. Jackson were terrific, and the usual Tarantino banter was… well, it’s what I like about Tarantino, so there’s that (Tarantino’s motto: “You can’t bleed to death until you say something pithy.”)

much adoI had mixed feelings about Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing. I kept casting my mind back to being in France in 1993, when I watched Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (and good Lord save us, Robert Sean Leonard and Keanu Reeves, what were they thinking) saying those same lines. I saw that movie four or five times at that French arthouse theater, because it was the only English anyone was saying around me, and it felt glad and familiar. This version was good, but it just wasn’t as good as that one. It made me think about how maybe not everyone is good enough to do Shakespeare, or else Whedon didn’t direct his little repertory company well enough, or something; some of the scenes were great — funny or heartfelt or perfectly timed — but some were leaden (Nathan Fillion, I’m looking at you.) Fortunately, the main characters were the best: Leonato, Beatrice, Benedick. (Claudio and Hero, not so much. Don John could only be an improvement over Keanu Reeves, but wasn’t awesome.) I liked the modern setting, but couldn’t figure out why it was in black and white; it felt “stylish” for no reason. Anyone else adore this or hate it?

death comes to pemberleyAnd then I watched Death Comes to Pemberley. This was one I didn’t really expect to like, because I’m choosy about Jane Austen stuff, but I figured I could keep my eyes mostly shut and look at the decor. Instead, I found myself enjoying it more and more. Assuming that it was a good adaptation of the book (I haven’t read it — see choosiness), P.D. James took the nature of Austen’s characters seriously as she put them in a new situation. The murder itself wasn’t outlandish or foreign to something that might actually occur a few years on, either. With one exception, I found the entire thing plausible, perceptive, engaging, and interesting, and I was really drawn in. (The exception was that I think James slandered Colonel Fitzwilliam, who is friendly and charming in Pride and Prejudice and is… not, in this novel.) I also thought it was really well cast. I am especially fond of Anna Maxwell Martin, and would take the opportunity to see her in almost anything, so that was a bonus. Should I read the book?

What did you think of these films, if you’ve seen them? Casting choices? Adaptations? Have you read the books they’re based on? Have you seen any other book-based films lately? Take it to the comments, folks!

Posted in Bookish films | 20 Comments

The Moor’s Account

Moors AccountMy third book for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel is a solidly entertaining, straight-down-the-line work of historical fiction by Laila Lalami. I was unimpressed by Lalami’s first novel, so I was not enthusiastic about reading this, but it’s a much better book than her first and offers much of what I enjoy about historical fiction while avoiding most of the missteps that get on my nerves.

The subject of The Moor’s Account is the ill-fated 1527 Narváez expedition in which a group of Spanish explorers and set out to establish colonies in Florida. Only four men from the expedition of around 300 survived. One of these survivors was an enslaved African known as Estevanico, and this novel is his version of events. I knew nothing about this particular expedition, so I can’t speak to what Lalami got right or wrong, but I can attest to her having written an exciting story of exploration and survival.

In her author’s note, Lalami says that her version of Esteban is entirely fictional. She gives him a history in Morocco in which he himself was a slave trader known as Mustafa al-Zamori. It was starvation and fear for his family’s future that led him to sell himself into slavery and eventually into the hands of Dorantes, an explorer bound for Florida. The early chapters of the novel alternate between Mustafa’s back story and his journey through the New World. Eventually, the story settles into Mustafa’s account of his travels, which includes encounters with multiple American Indian tribes, periods of starvation and sickness, and bewildering dilemmas as the explorers become more and more lost and must determine what to do.

I was impressed at how Lalami was able to show the colonists’ serious misdeeds without turning them into monsters. These men bring violence, greed, and disease with them. As an outsider, Mustafa sees their wrongdoing but is powerless to intercede as they rape and pillage their way across North America. Still, when there are only a handful of men left, and they are starving and hoping to figure out a way home, it’s hard not to hope along with them. I rooted against them and for them and against them again. And while Mustafa is at times a shade more modern than I might expect, he doesn’t feel like a 21st-century man planted into the 16th century. The book doesn’t take a superior attitude toward its historical subjects, and I appreciate that. It shows us their atrocities but doesn’t preach about how vile those atrocities were. It trusts readers to see it.

Although I enjoyed this book a lot and would recommend it to anyone who likes exploration and survival narratives, it’s not the kind of book I’d expect to see on the Booker list. As entertaining as it is, it doesn’t do much that’s particularly original or new, other than offering an enslaved narrator whose perspective on the venture will, of course, be different from that of the free men he’s with. Watching Mustafa’s role shift over time as the group dwindles and his enslaved status becomes less relevant is interesting, I suppose, but it’s not unpredictable.

Still, even though this isn’t in what I’d consider the absolute top tier of historical fiction, I’m glad to have read it, and I look forward to seeing what the others on the shadow panel think.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged | 5 Comments

A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time BeingAs I sit down to write about Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, I’m wondering how to articulate just how much I liked this book. It’s one of the most charming books I’ve read this year, but if I try to explain the plot, it might sound like not much (or too much, if I get too deep). So I’ll try to give you a sense of what it’s like and hope that’s enough to help you see whether this could be a book for you, as it was very much a book for me.

The book centers on a found manuscript, a diary in what looks like a copy of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The diary is written by a Japanese teenager girl named Nao, and it’s her voice that drew me into the book from the start. She begins like so:


My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid cafe in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future.

Something about her voice here reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s brilliant Behind the Scenes and the Museum, a novel that won my heart almost entirely because of narrator Ruby’s voice. Nao remains a pleasing narrator throughout, even when she gets serious about the horrors in her life. Her father is suicidal (as is she at times), and she’s horribly bullied at school. Her great grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun, is her main source of emotional support, and Nao promises to tell Jiko’s story in these pages. She never quite gets there, but that’s OK. Jiko’s story is not the one she really needed to tell.

The time being who reads Nao’s journal is a writer named Ruth who finds the journal and some other items in a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has washed up on the shore of the isolated Canadian island where she and her husband live. She reads the journal to her husband, one entry at a time, and they wonder how Nao’s journal made its way to them. Was it part of the tsunami jetsam, finally reaching Canada? If so, where is Nao now? Did the tsunami take her, or did she follow through on her plans to take her own life? So as they read, Ruth takes steps to solve the mystery and muses over her own existence on this island, so different from the populated world where she feels more at home.

Nao’s first person chapters and Ruth’s third person ones alternate, and for me, Nao’s were far more compelling. But that doesn’t mean I disliked the chapters about Ruth. I think the provided necessary rest, as Ruth uses her days to meditate over life and whether she’s where she ought to be. She’d rather be in New York, but her husband needs the quiet for his health, and she wants to be with him. So she makes the best of it. Also, Ruth acts out the part of the reader, asking the questions and doing the things that we readers want to do as we read Nao’s story. It’s just that Ruth is actually able to do something.

Toward the end, the book takes some strange turns, with timelines changing and the future altering the past. I had mixed feelings about some of this. On the one hand, I kind of liked the idea of characters reaching for each other across time. But I think the book goes wrong in trying to explain it. Perhaps if I studied quantum physics I’d find that stuff fascinating, but I found the mystery far more exciting than the explanation, which isn’t an explanation at all but a vocabulary for naming the mystery. But that material takes up a very small portion of the book and didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment—perhaps it would enhance yours!

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The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel

What was I thinking? My yoga teacher said last night that the blue moon is a time of increased energy and taking on new projects. Perhaps I was celebrating a day early. Whatever the reason, when Frances asked me on Thursday whether I’d like to join a Booker shadow jury, I said yes with little hesitation.

So I’ll be joining BellezzaNicole, Rebecca, and Frances in an attempt to read the Man Booker longlist and create our own shortlist by the time the actual shortlist is announced in September. It’s an informal process, and we’ll be posting as we go, so you can watch our list develop–and maybe enjoy the suspense of differing opinions!

Lucky for me, I’ve already read two of the shortlisted books, and my feelings about them couldn’t be further apart. And last I checked, these were at the top of the odds for winning the prize. So for a taste of what I’m likely to push for (or not), check out my reviews.

With Lila, Marilynne Robinson continues to cement her place in my mind as America’s greatest living writer. Here, she takes on the voice of the uneducated but intelligent Lila, eventual wife of John Ames from Robinson’s earlier novel Gilead, as Lila takes tentative steps toward accepting and understanding love after years of focusing on little more than mere survival.

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life garnered much praise as a searing exploration of the long-term results of abuse and the glory of friendship and love in the midst of pain, even as that love fails to surmount the pain. I, unfortunately, found it to be melodramatic and ridiculous.

Have you read any of the long-listed books? Which one(s) are you rooting for (or against)?

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